Little margin for error

The projected United States campaign to remove Saddam Hussein and his regime from power in Iraq clearly serves an Israeli interest. Saddam is a threat to Israeli and indeed regional security and stability. But if the campaign fails, it is fraught with dangers for Israel, particularly with regard to the Jordanian-Palestinian sphere.

Similarly, US President George W. Bush’s policies regarding democratization within the Palestinian Authority–a noble goal by any standard, Israeli or Palestinian–represent a high stakes gamble from Israel’s standpoint.

It is discomfiting to contemplate the prospect that US plans for the region are not well thought out.

It is also easy to identify with the Bush administration’s grand design to eliminate Muslim extremist influence and venal and corrupt leaders like Saddam Hussein and Yasir Arafat. But that design could fail. Alternatively, it could “succeed,” as it did in Afghanistan, where Qaida and Bin Laden apparently still exist and the American-installed regime is so unstable that the leader, Qarzai, has to be protected by American soldiers. In this sense there is something troubling in what the Council on Foreign Relations’ Youssef Ibrahim calls the administration’s “simple speak” approach to our region. And of course it doesn’t help that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears perfectly at ease with these policies.

Moving to specifics, in the Palestinian sphere the Bush administration has linked any new peace process to a “reform” plan that is supposed to bring about the removal from power of Yasir Arafat and the democratization of Palestinian society. If that plan fails, then the peace process is ostensibly frozen and Israel’s hands are tied until further notice–unless, of course, Bush and Sharon choose to acknowledge, tacitly or declaratively, that their approach was misbegotten. Yet even if it succeeds, we run the danger of the Algeria phenomenon, whereby American pressure for democratic elections produced a Muslim fundamentalist victory and ushered in a seemingly endless civil war. Moderate Arab leaders like Egypt’s Mubarrak have been warning the US to lay low on Middle East democratization ever since.

Perhaps of even greater concern are the dumbed-down rules of Rumsfeld. When the American secretary of defense talks so benignly of the occupation of the West Bank and the ongoing construction of settlements, he may–it’s debatable–be scoring a few points for an objective reading of history and land rights in the region. But he is also dooming Israel to the fate of South Africa: a Jewish minority hopelessly intertwined territorially with an Arab majority over which it rules with increasingly apartheid-like tactics. In an era when more and more Israelis, right and left, are focusing on the demographic threat to Israel’s long-term identity and security, it is lamentable that this concern is not echoed by a single senior figure in a US administration that purports to cherish Israel as a democratic, Jewish state.

In the US-Iraqi sphere, the big danger to Israel’s interest in a long term stable relationship with the Palestinian people concerns Jordan. In the 1991 Gulf War, King Hussein succeeded in maneuvering among three strategic constraints–the allegiance of Jordan’s majority Palestinian population to Iraq, Iraq’s own implicit threat to Jordan’s integrity, and American and Arab pressures to join the coalition–and brought Jordan through the crisis relatively safely, albeit at the cost of misplaced American pique. In the event of a new (and possibly more prolonged and messy) US-Iraq conflict, King Abdullah’s Jordan may be exposed to fewer Arab pressures–there is little likelihood of an American-Arab coalition this time–but to more pressures from the US to use its territory for attacking Iraq, and to heavier pressure from the Palestinian “street,” in view of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Hashemite regime is increasingly nervous about the dangers to domestic stability posed by the overflow from an American-initiated dual conflict situation to its east and its west.

Of course the Hashemites, like the rest of us, stand to benefit from the removal of Saddam Hussein. Conceivably even the dream of a restoration of Hashemite rule in Baghdad may no longer be mere wishful thinking for some key figures in Amman. But Jordanians are also preoccupied with darker scenarios: the forcible transfer of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank, refugees flooding in from Iraq, and mass rioting in the streets of Jordan’s cities, all under cover of war. Israeli and American leaders, for whom the worst conceivable outcome of new unrest in the Middle East would be the Palestinization of Jordan, should find ways to reassure Jordan, publicly and privately.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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